“I never could have done what I have done without the habit to concentrate myself on one subject at a time.” – Charles Dickens
Think about a situation in which you knew the right way to act or the right thing to do. It was instinct, or it was habit. Maybe you were playing a sport or speaking publicly. Maybe you were driving or even making love. Whatever it was, you started thinking too much about it, and then things got weird.
This illustrates a fact about the way your brain works. Your brain does alright performing tasks that don’t require your active mind at the same time. It doesn’t do so hot doing more automatic tasks when your active consciousness is in the way.
The facts about how the human brain manages active and inactive tasks also explain why multitasking doesn’t exist. You cannot multitask. Sorry. Take a moment to react however you do. It’s okay– Americans in particular have been in love with the multitasker-savant myth almost since first trying to scientifically systematize business productivity a hundred years ago.
A common reaction to this truth is a litany of counterexamples: walking + chewing; rubbing your belly + patting your head; answering email + eating a taco + belting I Will Always Love You with the radio (the Whitney version) + driving, etc…. The trouble is that those counterexamples only seem real. The fact is that your brain is an incredible task switching machine, but it is not a multitasking one.
Your brain can run a ton of what scientists call “involuntary” functions (breathing, pumping blood, admiring the physique of 1980s David Hasselhoff, etc…), but it can only really, actively perform one voluntary activity at a time, particularly when competing activities rely on the same mental process(es). So, if you absolutely need to write a brief and watch The Walking Dead during the same hour, the two activities are going to fight for the full attention of your brain (and both lose, unless it’s that one episode… in which case the brief will lose, and Carl and a Bengal Tiger will wander into your brief by paragraph three.)
A person hearing this for the first time might wonder, “what’s the big deal?” After all, whether you call it multi-tasking or task switching, you’re still Getting Things Done, right?
It’s okay if you don’t believe me. Believe the science.
The multitasking myth creates at least four problems:
Please read the word “multitask” and its variations in the rest of this post as though they are surrounded by big, fat air quotes.
Over time, multitasking degrades our overall ability to concentrate.
In the introduction to his book Focus, the Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Goleman compares attention to a muscle, advising, “…use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows” (4). In that metaphor, skipping from task to task is effectively letting your self-control sit on the couch to eat Cheese Doodles and flip T.V. channels.
- The cycle feeds itself: The more writers on the web write for this “need” by dishing us short content broken into bite-sized pieces by oodles of white space, the more we require bite-sized information.
- As we reduce our capacity to concentrate on a single task, we increase the need for simple, shallow content. Or, at the very least, we end up time starved and in need of people to tell us what matters and why. And, of course, the more we require simple, shallow content, the more will be offered.
- How many adults do you know that make regular, passing reference to their (almost universally self diagnosed) “ADHD”?
- Literally, while doing research for this article, I arrived at CNN.com and received a popup asking me if I’d like CNN to summarize the news for me, offering their “5 things You Need to Know” daily news summary email. This is, obviously, half of The Week’s “10 Things You Need to Know” news summary email, which has been going for several years.
- Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon, but I’m concerned.
2 & 3. Multitasking makes you less efficient and less accurate.
Much like the line that runs your internet connection, our brains only have so much bandwidth. Switching back and forth is distracting.
Scientists suggest that there are at least two different sets of information your brain has to overwrite in your working memory every time you switch tasks. First your brain has to decide on what the new goal is, then it has to foreground the rules for how to do that task. Your brain does this every time you switch.
Those few hundred milliseconds don’t seem like much, but consider that the old “rules” stick around a little bit to muck up your concentration on the new task, causing you to do it slower and less accurately.
Then, multiply both the time cost and the attention cost by the number of notifications you’ve received on your computer and/or phone since starting this article, and you start to understand how the cost to efficiency and accuracy can become exponential.
Couple all that with a task where attention and reaction time really matter, and you’re not just slow– you’re dangerous.
4. Multitasking Decreases Self Control.
The scientists mentioned above (Stanford researchers Nass, Ophir, and Wagner), set out to understand why it was that some people seemed better able to “multitask” (taskswitch) than others.
It turned out that it just wasn’t true. In fact, time after time, testing for different aptitudes that might explain it, the only common factors among people who claimed to be good at keeping multiple lines of activity going to efficiently achieve multiple goals were 1) they claimed they could and 2) they actually performed worse than those who focused on a single activity at a time.
This is in keeping with what research tells us about self control and “selective attention.”
Selective attention is our ability to deliberately focus on a single object or activity. That means that we can actually train ourselves to filter out distraction and to focus on a task, or a long term goal, instead of on distractions or temptations. As Goleman explains in Focus, “The greater the demands on our attention… the poorer we get at resisting temptations.
It’s no surprise that when we deliberately keep our attention “open” we are deliberately opting to increase “the demands on our attention” (88). So it stands to reason that the more we do that, the more we decrease our ability to resist impulses.
And this, too, feeds itself. In a world where we take a shot of dopamine every time we respond to the call of a Facebook notification (Linkedin if you’re businessy- this is a business blog, after all), we are rewarding ourselves for breaking our attention while simultaneously degrading our ability to attend.
Some things we can to do:
All that feels a little bleak. But if the costs of the multitasking myth are realized because of our choices, then surely we can make choices that strengthen our ability to concentrate and increase our efficiency, accuracy, and self control. Right?
So, let’s cultivate it.
Nobody has to tell you that sleep affects your ability to concentrate. The third order implications are scarier than we realized only a generation or two ago, however. Sleep deprivation slams us right into the low-concentration –> low self-control –> high distraction (call it multitasking, if you want) –> low concentration cycle.
Ever slept badly, started the day with a sugar/caffeine bomb and hated yourself by the end of the day because of what you did instead of what you wish you’d done? Me neither. But I’ve heard that happens.
Like so many things, a habit of sufficient sleep reinforces itself. Your very ability to tell yourself to go to bed at a decent hour (so you can go to the gym before work, of course) is related to whether you got a good night’s sleep the night before.
If you can’t read in a crowd without being distracted, one or both of two things is true:
1) Your book sucks.
2) You don’t read often enough.
Uninterrupted reading is almost unparalleled as both weight bench and treadmill for the channel-flipping attention span.
From Tim Ferris to Tony Robbins, the gurus agree that spiritual routines are important to a quiet, effective mind.
What these might include definitely varies, but it’s well established that people who routinely practice mindfulness, gratitude, and/or meditation are happier and healthier, and they are much more cognitively effective.
Group tasks to reduce the cost of switching.
Amy Porterfield coined the term term “Mega-batching,” but the concept has been around at least since David Allen codified it in his classic productivity bible Getting Things Done. Here are a few ways of thinking about grouping like tasks to reduce the cost of task switching on your productivity.
Group tasks by Context(s).
The simplest way to think about Allen’s advice on this matter is to categorize your “to-do” items in two ways.
1) Categorize by how much time and energy they require, so that when you have a block of time in which to do a thing, you can look at available tasks and plug in what’s appropriate based on your appointments and degree of git-r-done-ness.
2) Categorize by context. This means making it clear where and with what tools a task needs done and being sure to work on tasks that require a specific combination of location and tools in the same block of time.
You can see the appeal: You don’t have to get things out and put them away as much, relocate, or possibly even activate new goals and rules. If that’s too daunting for a weekday, even a good list can help with goal determination.
Amy Porterfield gets the gold star for “mega-batching.“ Lots of gurus like Michael Hyatt (a confessed Getting Things Done fan) advocate for day-sized task groups, but Amy takes it several steps further by attacking large tasks like content creation in huge chunks– in some cases devoting entire weeks to them.
The most extreme example is the Porterfield Team’s current process for building the podcast itself, where they’ll go through all the phases of podcast production, from planning to editing, in batches of six or more episodes at a time.
Pair tasks that use different parts of the brain.
For just a moment, let me return to the premise and qualify it. You cannot multitask unless you’re using the inactive and active parts of the brain separately. You can run and comprehend an audiobook. You can drive and sing (Leave the taco in the bag. Leave Whitney alone).
You can’t ogle Hasselhoff circa 1984 and do much else, but I digress.
Some other ways to strengthen your focus:
Practice Memorization: Memory verses, classic book titles/authors, the names of your kids… the more you’re in the practice of retaining and recalling information, the better you get.
Exercise: Getting your blood moving for 30 minutes or more improves memory and focus, and it improves impulse control. Not to mention your mental health.
Get social: Socializing makes you smarter and bolsters your concentration. So why not visit a new 4BR group this week and grow your network? Thursday’s my networking day. What’s yours?